Sometimes a casual fellow traveller may tell you more about the country than a two-month stay. In the midst of the Chinese New Year, I took a trip to Shanghai from the very south of the country. Train tickets were sold out, so I had to stand during the whole trip. I spent more than a day in the company of hundreds of Chinese and thousands of their trunks and knapsacks. The best thing that could happen to you was a restaurant car.
In the dining-car there were a lot of noise, weird smells of food, card fights and cigarette smoke, but you could sleep a couple of hours on a table. For a VIP-seating you must pay every three hours, though at night you get a discount. Half a day I was lounging about the train in order to save money, and only after having become completely sleepy, I bought nine hours of sleep. More precisely, I hoped so for a nap.
“What do you think about the situation in Xinjiang?” asked a very young Chinese in diligent English. I started with distrust. I shared the table with four men, the two in front of me were preoccupied with their “Samsungs”, but for the neighbor on the right it was clearly more interesting to talk to a laowai.
“What is your attitude, as a foreigner, to the situation in Xinjiang?”, the four-eye asked patiently, putting aside his textbook on physic. The next three hours I spent talking about the historical superiority of the Chinese nation.
My companion was 18 years old,and he had fluff instead of moustache. He was returning from holidays to continue his technological studies at the Shanghai Fudan University, one of the most prestigious in China. He was a future engineer, the elite of the nation. He was also the seventh child in the family – his father, a wealthy farmer, paid 10,000 yuan (about € 1200) for the right of his birth. He was going to join the Communist Party, did not deny the possibility of studying abroad, but in general just wanted to serve his people.
After the initial symbolic question about Xinjiang, I was asked also about Taiwan and the disputed territories with Japan. Those questions were no less symbolic, as my knowledge of the subject was not required. Heedless of my answer, my companion happily started to give “correct” explanations. For him a foreign girl was an object of purely geopolitical interest. To sum up the last 70 years of Chinese history, the Japanese were to blame. Secondly, the Americans. Delighted to find out where I was from, the young man inflated his breast, held his breath, and rushed into battle.
“Do you consider America a superpower?”
“What power?” I did not understand his accent. He outstretched his left arm up, imitating Superman.
“Well, like Superman – superpower!” At that moment everybody in the car was looking at us with interest. “In school we were taught that before there were two superpowers, the USSR and the USA, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, only one superpower remained. As a resident of a post-Soviet state, what do you think – is there a threat to China from the USA?”
Smoothly and on this ideologically correct note, we moved from with the foreign policy issues to the internal affairs. I was getting tired of the conversation.
“Is it true that in the West they think that our party is a little bit…”, the boy had to consult the dictionary, “…authoritarian?”
In that manner parents usually ask about school achievements of their son who is a poor student.
It turned out that the party is still a serious matter, even though it has 80 million members, or every tenth Chinese. To become a member of the party, you have to go through several stages. First, you should be recommended. Second, you should write a motivation letter up to 3000 characters on the topic “What can I do for China?”. Third, you should take an exam and join the… (the Chinese had to consult the dictionary again) communist youth league. After the trial period you get a cherished red sheepskin.
“Although, to be honest, if you do not want to make a career in politics, you hardly need to enter the party”, the guy stirring a kind of prison food that we had chipped in .
My initial genuine curiosity changed into irritation and a burning desire to find a gap in the Chinese’s defense. All the statements sounded familiar, so where was his Achilles’ heel? Which question could he not answer? Political repression? The economic backwardness of some regions along with the industrial power of the others? Persecution of journalists? Internet censorship, banned websites? The lack of something that his Western peers have?
“You know, China is a very large country, and to maintain sta … stab …”, my companion was nervously looking for a proper word in the electronic dictionary.”Stability”, I sighed knowingly.
“Stability”, I sighed knowingly.
“Exactly!” he noded gladly. “To maintain the stability we need to sacrifice something. China gets its own way, you know”.
Of course I knew. I had heard it already somewhere. Bingo! That’s the root of the great friendship between the two brotherly peoples. Taking my insight for confusion, the future engineer touchingly tried to explain:
“You see, we have a different outlook. America was founded by immigrants, people of different backgrounds who shared a common value – freedom. For the Chinese, their ancestors are of the utmost importance. The whole country, the people, we consider ourselves one big family. It is important for us to stick together. We just have different values”.
“Look, you were told like that at school?” I could not contain myself.
No! That’s my own opinion!” the guy indignantly set his glasses straight. I believed him for some reason.
I never found out the name of my fellow traveller, for near midnight we fell asleep together on the table, completely exhausted with the difference of values. In the morning he shook my hand and ran away, and I was observing Chinese landscape outside the window alone. A building, a construction site, a dump, a building, a city.
I would think that I had encountered a very smart freak. But no, as the friends who had been living in China, told me. Everyone was under such a hypnosis.
It is awkward to describe the Celestial Empire in terms of the western logocentric society. Authoritarian capitalism? Capitalist communism? Patriotic dictatorship? They consume a lot and happily (those who have something to consume, of course), love to sleep during the day, and mostly spit upon the party. It is difficult to say for all the billion population, but some still have Mao’s portraits at home (I personally saw such in remote villages), and taxi drivers keep it near the figures of Buddha. And for sure there are those who have offshore bank accounts. But that is not the point.
It is difficult to imagine such a conversation with a student of a prestigious university, for example, in Belarus. A boundless love for the European Union as a political entity also seems doubtful. And in China it is possible. They manage to know everything, but at the same time they truly believe in the correctness of the Party’s decisions. We are the people. It is not stupidity, it’s hard to call patriotism, either, it is unanimity. The party of unanimity And the commune was here even before the communism.
Here people like dancing all together, and if there is a dispute, then everybody is engaged. We, individualists, do not understand this. This is alarming. But it’s all about different values, you know.
Translated by MA